Trial starts this week in Austrian incest case

Sunday, March 15, 2009
**ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, MARCH 15** ** FILE ** In this file photo taken by and released by the Austrian police with permission of Austria's prosecution office on April 28, 2008 suspect Josef Fritzl is seen at an unspecified location. For almost a quarter of a century, Josef Fritzl allegedly held his daughter as a sex slave in a cramped, rat-infested cellar where he fathered seven children with her. (AP Photo/Police Niederoesterreich, file)

AMSTETTEN, Austria -- For almost a quarter of a century, Josef Fritzl allegedly held his daughter as a sex slave in a cramped cellar where he fathered seven children with her.

The 73-year-old Austrian's trial starts this week. He has confessed to imprisoning and repeatedly raping his daughter Elisabeth for 24 years in a windowless dungeon he built beneath the family's home.

Prosecutors have charged Fritzl with murder, saying a child who died in infancy in 1996 might have survived if taken to a doctor. He also stands accused of rape, incest, coercion, false imprisonment and enslavement.

Fritzl's lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, said his client will plead guilty to most of the charges but will dispute the murder and enslavement counts when the trial opens Monday in St. Poelten, west of Vienna. He also described the slavery accusation as "questionable."

Prosecutors said they based the murder charge on testimony from Fritzl's daughter, videos of which will be shown in court behind closed doors to an eight-member jury. They said Fritzl refused to take action "despite the baby's life-threatening situation" after the boy developed breathing problems and turned blue.

"Whatever happens, happens," was Fritzl's response as the newborn grew sicker, the indictment alleges. Prosecutors said they based the murder charge largely on that statement.

Mayer said Fritzl saw the baby for the first time when it was already dead.

Some legal experts argue the prosecution's efforts to make a concrete case for murder will be complicated by the passage of time and the absence of forensic evidence. Police say Fritzl told them he burned the infant's body in a furnace after he died.

DNA tests have confirmed that Fritzl fathered all six of his daughter's surviving children, authorities say.

In Austria, which does not have the death penalty, murder carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. If convicted of enslavement, Fritzl could face up to 20 years behind bars. For rape, he could get up to 15.

According to Mayer, Fritzl expects to spend the rest of his life in captivity.

But since prosecutors contend he has a "high degree of emotional and intellectual abnormality," he probably would serve his sentence in a special psychiatric facility -- rather than a regular prison -- so he could get counseling.

Fritzl has been in pretrial detention in St. Poelten since the dungeon and the horrors that allegedly happened there surfaced last April. His jailers have described him as quiet, polite and inconspicuous.

Mayer, building upon those comments, emphasized that Fritzl is not the "sex monster" some have made him out to be.

In a recent interview with the Austria Press Agency, Mayer said Fritzl loved his daughter "in his own way," adding that the defendant's childhood experiences had convinced him he could only make people love him through the use of "power and coercion."

More than 150 journalists are expected to converge on the St. Poelten courthouse for the trial, which is scheduled to last just five days. Three judges will oversee the proceedings and the deliberations of an eight-member jury, which is expected to deliver its verdict March 20. Mayer on Saturday suggested it could all be over sooner.

On Saturday, he told The Associated Press that Fritzl hoped the jury would not be prejudiced by media coverage.

"He's nervous," Mayer said when asked how Fritzl felt about the pending proceedings.

Court spokesman Franz Cutka said none of Fritzl's victims or family members will be present during the largely closed-door proceedings.

Elisabeth, now in her early 40s, was 18 when she was first confined to the cellar in 1984. Three of the incest offspring grew up underground, never seeing the light of day. The other three were brought upstairs to be raised by Fritzl and his wife, Rosemarie, who apparently believed they had been abandoned.

Fritzl's victims recovered from their ordeal in a psychiatric hospital, and Elisabeth and the children since have moved to a secret location. Their lawyers have pleaded with the media to leave them alone so they can begin to live normal lives. Seeking refuge from reporters, they have returned to the hospital until the trial is over and the media attention dies down.

It is the normal policy of The Associated Press to withhold the names of victims of sexual assault, but the identities of two of Fritzl's victims have become known. In this case, withholding the names became impractical when the victims' first names and the full name of their father were announced publicly by police, and details about them became the subject of massive publicity both in Austria and around the world.

Fritzl, whom relatives have described as a tyrant, told his wife that Elisabeth had joined a cult and wanted her parents to take care of the three youngsters who had appeared on the doorstep of their home. He backed up his lie with letters he forced Elisabeth to write over the years.

In the end, it was the illness of one of the "cellar children" -- 19-year-old Kerstin -- that uncovered Fritzl's sordid secret.

When Kerstin fell sick, Fritzl brought her upstairs so she could be hospitalized. Baffled doctors appealed on TV for her mother to come forward because they needed information about the girl's medical history. Fritzl then accompanied Elisabeth to the hospital on April 26, and her story soon became known.

In Amstetten, a working-class town 75 miles west of Vienna, retirees gather for afternoon chats at a cafe on the main square and teenagers hang out at the mall after school.

Mayor Herbert Katzengruber insists the town has put the horror behind it.

"This is an individual's crime that, unfortunately, could happen everywhere," he said. "Normal life in Amstetten resumed long ago. People are positive ... this terrible act has been well reflected upon and processed."

But the mood on the streets suggests the trial has ripped opened what was a healing wound.

On a recent afternoon, many people simply grimaced and kept walking when asked about Fritzl. Others expressed shock that something so calculated could have taken place in their hometown.

"In my circle of friends, there's still a kind of disbelief that this happened here," said Sabine Mayrhofer, a middle-aged woman who said she lived in Fritzl's neighborhood.

"He deserves a severe sentence."

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